Return of the Bedbug

The hardy bloodsuckers were once nearly eradicated from the city

By Malavika Vyawahare, Roberto Kaz and Dino Grandoni

Isabel de Luca’s 3-year-old son was the first to spot the bugs. “It was early in the morning,” the Upper West Side resident recalled. “My son climbed on my bed and said it was full of ants.” But the insects weren’t ants. “When I took a closer look at the mattress, I became terrified,” she said. Her pricy orthopedic mattress had become a nest of bedbugs. Born in Brazil, de Luca had never heard of bedbugs before she moved to New York in 2012. “We don’t have them where I used to live,” she said. “But once I arrived here, I realized how serious the problem was.”

Few if any creatures make New Yorkers more anxious than bedbugs. Once nearly eradicated from the city, these tiny, ancient bloodsuckers have crawled out of obscurity during the 21st century to tuck themselves into bed sheets, box springs and baseboards. Unlike mosquitoes and some other insects, they are not known to transmit disease between people. But human blood happens to be their preferred food. And when they feed, they not only cover the body with irritating red welts, but take people’s peace of mind.

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The Amarna bedbug, the oldest known fossil of the insect, is from 3,500 years ago. (Photo courtesy Eva Panagiotakopulu and Paul Buckland)

Believed by scientists to have originated in the Mediterranean region 250,000 years ago, bedbugs—occasionally called wall lice, red coats or blood bugs in English—are at least as old as humans. The oldest fossilized bedbug, found in Egypt by archaeologists Eva Panagiotakopulu and Paul Buckland, dates back 3,500 years. The bugs lived in caves, probably feeding on bat blood, “when some early relative of ours sought shelter in those caves” and became their prey too, explained Brooke Borel, science journalist and author of Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World.

Bedbugs arrived in North America with the first European settlers. They spread widely until the end of World War II when a new potent toxin, commonly known as DDT, was dispersed to protect Allied troops from malaria-carrying mosquitos. Soon, sprays were aimed inside New Yorkers’ apartments to kill bedbugs, cockroaches and other pests. The bedbug population drastically diminished. “I got involved in pest control in 1970,” said Gil Bloom, a trained entomologist and third-generation exterminator based in Astoria, Queens. “From 1970 to 1995, I did three bedbug jobs.”

But as is the case with successful species, bedbugs adapted. Those that survived DDT bred, and the population became resistant to the pesticide. During the 1970s and 1980s, DDT and several other pesticides were phased out after they were proven to be dangerous to humans. In addition, exterminators fighting cockroach infestations switched from spraying baseboards and molding with toxins to baiting the insects with targeted poisons, Bloom explained. What the pest control specialists didn’t realize was that the roach sprays had been keeping bedbugs in check, too.

By the late 1990s, New York’s bedbug population once again exploded. City exterminators were flummoxed when the insects returned. “We weren’t prepared for it,” Bloom said. “Pest control experts weren’t up on what to do.”

Photo 2 stop bed bugs imageBy the end of the 2000s, rising rates of infestations and media scrutiny made it hard for city authorities to look the other way. Highly publicized infestations at stores like Victoria’s Secret, Hollister and Nike brought into focus how bedbug infestations cut across social class. A pair of cigarette-smoking bugs lying in bed graced the cover of The New Yorker. In 2009, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg commissioned an advisory board to deal with the bugs.

The board devised modern techniques to tackle an old problem. It recommended using pesticides in conjunction with dry-vapor steamers and high-powered vacuums to eliminate bedbugs. Efforts by city officials and pest control specialists to educate New Yorkers about bedbug-avoidance tips—such as not picking up furniture from the street—started paying off as well.

But the bug is far from crushed.

Borel decided to write a book about bedbugs after dealing with three infestations herself, including one that sent her to the emergency room. “Before, I did not think they were actually real things,” she said. “But when I started learning about them, I realized there was a real cool evolution story here. They are survivors.”

“Bedbugs are persistent,” said Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, who has been studying them for more than 30 years and is known for letting the bugs feed on him. He breeds a colony of about 10,000 bedbugs in jars at his home, and said the animals can survive in both warm and freezing temperatures. They can also live without a meal for up to two months.

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Louis Sorkin presenting about bedbugs at the American Museum of Natural History. (Courtesy Quintessential New York)

“The problem with this species of common bedbugs is that any warm-blooded animal is fair prey,” Sorkin said. The parasites find their meals by sensing body heat and exhaled carbon dioxide: “When you are sleeping, you are basically a stationary meal for them.”

People often have trouble identifying bedbugs because one can look quite different from another. Young specimens are pale and as short as a millimeter while adults are larger and brownish-red. Currently, Sorkin and his colleagues are trying to map the bedbug genome. They hope their findings could be used to develop better control strategies.

Until then, New Yorkers like De Luca must learn to adapt. She had pest control experts visit her home three times—once in the company of a fat beagle whose role was to sniff out every trace of the pest. For now, the bugs haven’t returned. “I changed my habits,” De Luca said. “I never again threw a coat over my bed. No clothes get into my room without going through the steamer first. I don`t sit anymore in the subway seats, and never place my bag on the floor. But it`s frightening, because even acting this way, I can get it during a taxi ride.”

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Recent comparison of bed bug reports in three cities from the Bedbug Registry web site.

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